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Pakistani Comic's Takedown Of Afghan Musical Culture Hits False Note

A young boy in Kabul plays a rabab, a traditional musical instrument.
A young boy in Kabul plays a rabab, a traditional musical instrument.
The Pakistani media -- like the country's textbooks, which describe Afghanistan as the first country to oppose Pakistani entry into the United Nations but ignore the fact that Kabul stood by Islamabad during its wars with India in 1965 and 1971 -- have struggled against the temptation to promote stereotypes and hatred against Afghans.

Critics argue that the Pakistani media's negative role has been visible throughout Afghanistan's ongoing conflict. Apart from spinning major issues, they note, Pakistani media have referred to dead Taliban insurgents as "Shaheed" (martyred) -- even suggesting that such references serve Pakistan's so-called strategic depth policy.

Afghanistan has frequently been the butt of jokes from Pakistani comedians, too. But a well-known Pakistani actor seemingly went too far recently in ridiculing Afghans on Pakistan's Dunya TV (see video below).

When a moderator asked Sohail Ahmad Azizi about a recently established music academy in Afghanistan, he replied, "What academy in Kabul!? Karzai's soldiers carry bombs and rifles the whole time there. What music will be made there?" He then launched into "Afghan-sounding" gibberish and played an "air rabab," the most famous Afghan musical instrument, pulled the pin of and tossed a mock grenade and made the sound of an explosion. Then, in a reference to words (Yaa Qurban) that are used in famous Pashtun romantic songs meaning, "I can sacrifice myself for your love," Azizi belted out "Yaa Qurban!" interspersed with pretending to fire a machine-gun.

The moderators laughed so hard that it left this viewer wondering what could possibly have been so funny.

Samar Esapzai from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in Pakistan, tells me on a social website that "it's really unfair to assume that just because this comedian made a joke, he is insulting Pashtuns as a whole. There is good and bad everywhere and we really need to learn how to take a joke." There are no doubt many people who, like Samar, wonder what's so bad about Azizi's remarks that Afghans can't just get over them.

But a number of people expressed anger and disapproval via Twitter. Peymana Walizai ‏(@PeymanaWalizai), a student at Kings College London, tweeted: "That wasn't even funny. At least if he were to insult us, the joke should be worth laughing at." Munir Khan (@munir104) tweeted: "Racist and unpleasant Pashtun stereotypes. I am surprised this is called comedy in Pakistan!" Alam Zeb Khan (@Pukhtun_Zalmay), a Pashtun from Pakistan, was clearly angry as he tweeted: "Trust me the #Pujabi ppl has this prejudice against us for ages. And unfortunately they r the ones who control and rule #Pak" The joke did not go over well with Waheed Khan (@idioticcc) either: "He had only half century history thats y insulting afghan people. I will email them as well related this issue."

It's worth mentioning that music has a rich history in Afghanistan and the Musical High School of Kabul and National Institute of Music Kabul are not the only institutes to have produced music teachers, composers, singers, musicians, and conductors. "Attan" is the national dance of Afghanistan, and the rich folk, classical, and pop music of Afghanistan is known around the world.

One of the most popular Afghan classical music legends, Ustad Mohammad Hussain Sarahang, apart from other awarded names, was awarded the "classical music crown" and dubbed the "father of classical music" in Indian Elahabad and Delhi music universities, respectively.

In the 1950s, when Pakistan was still a toddler on the global scene, the pop music culture in Afghanistan was in full bloom. Ahmad Zahir, known as "the king of modern Afghan music" and the Afghan Elvis Presley, was one of the most popular singers.

Farhad Azad, in his article "Distorted History of Afghan Music," says of Zahir: "In the Western comparative, he was a combination of John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Dean Martin."

That's a lot of entertainment history belying Azizi's effort at humor.

-- Malali Bashir